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3 Books I read this summer that all fundraisers should read

Nonprofit Fundraising, Nonprofit Storytelling

I am sorry to say it, but summer is rapidly coming to a close.

It always goes by too fast.

For me, it literally flies by because I spend a lot of time on airplanes.

For example, I take my annual trip to the USA each summer which means I get to fly half way around the world to visit family and friends.

This means over 20 hours sitting on an airplane…and that doesn’t include the layovers.

Anyway, as I was looking back on my summer I realized that I had read a lot of books.

I read on planes, I read on beaches, and I read on road trips.

Sometimes I find I’m actually guilty of reading too much too fast.

I don’t always take the time I should to let what I learn sink in or percolate.

As soon as I close one book I’m opening another.

So from time to time I make sure I sit down and reflect on what I’ve read and pull out the key lessons I’ve learned.

Looking back at what I read this summer I realized that quite a few of the book I enjoyed the most would be quite relevant for all nonprofit marketers and fundraiser to read.

Even though none of the books I want to discuss here would be considered “fundraising” books, all of them discuss important marketing concepts and principles that all fundraisers should understand.

Here are three book I read this summer that you should read, too…

Made to Stick: Why some ideas survive and others die

Chip and Dan Health are brothers and they are brilliant.

And even better than that…

They spent years trying to answer the following question:

“What makes an idea sticky?”

Working separately at first, they each aimed to understand why some ideas last and others don’t.

By conducting experiments and digging into the data they eventually concluded that there are 6 principles that make an idea stick.

This book outlines those six principles and provides concrete and actionable ways marketers (and fundraisers) like you can ensure their big ideas get stuck in the heads of their audience.

For example…

“The first problem of communication is getting people’s attention.”

They say the best way to solve this problem without having to raise your voice is to violate people’s expectations.

Say something unexpected.

Break a pattern.


“Surprise is an emotion whose function is to increase alertness and cause focus…”

When you say something unexpected people’s ears perk up and they focus in on the rest of your message because they want to understand how you were able to surprise them.

But surprise isn’t enough because it doesn’t last.

Surprise needs to be followed by a message that continues to generate interest and curiosity.

Read Made to Stick to get the full explanation and see great examples of each of the 6 sticky idea principles in action.


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Contagious: Why Things Catch On

Jonah Berger, the author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On, was mentored by Chip Heath at Stanford.

And that’s good for us.

Berger used similar methodologies and research as Chip and Dan to find the answer to a slightly different question:

“What makes an idea ‘contagious’ or spread by word-of-mouth or social influence?”

In a way, this book is an extension of Made to Stick.

Instead of looking at what makes ideas stick, he is looking at what makes ideas spread.

This is particularly relevant to all nonprofits that want to create the next viral social media post.

The book follows a similar format as Made to Stick in that Berger has identified 6 principles that make an idea contagious.

He backs up each principle with research and examples on how each principle can and should be applied.

Read this book and you’ll be left with quite a few ideas you can start testing out as you work to create your next viral media campaign.

For example…

One of the principles outlined is that you should work to provide ‘practical value.’

Simply put, make content that is useful.

People like to help others.

Leverage this by creating something that helps to solve a problem.

Once your solution is used and found to be effective, the people you have helped will want to share your solution with their connections.

By helping others solve their problems you are also able to help spread your ideas and your brand.

There are lots of ways you could use this principle to expand your community of support and increase your email subscribers.

I found this book to be full of helpful insights and reading it along with Made to Stick offers a perfect one-two punch to help you improve your marketing chops.

Story Trumps Structure: How to write unforgettable fiction by breaking the rules

At first glance, this book might seem an odd recommendation.

After all, nonprofits are not (or at least SHOULD NOT) be in the business of writing fictional stories.

That could get you in quite a lot of trouble.

But what I found so exciting about this book is that the author, Steven James, does an excellent job of discussing story structure and what makes a story exciting and interesting to your audience.

It is written to help fiction writers understand how best to formulate and structure their story.

But many of these same principles and guidelines can also be applied to nonfiction.

The entire time I was reading this book I was thinking through how these same principles could be applied to true stories.

The only difference is that instead of making it up, you have to go out and find it.

Here’s a quick example of what I mean.

James says that without a problem there is no story.

With fiction, you can create whatever problem you want.

With true stories you need to explore the whole story and then identify the BIGGEST problem.

This BIG problem is your story.

Identify the problem first, then write the rest of your true story around that problem.

A lot of the time, when we set out to write one of our stories, we start by determining our hero and then explaining plot points.

Here’s our hero.

First this happened.

Then that happened.

And then finally this happened.

We think in terms of plot.

But that is not what makes a story interesting or engaging.

What makes the audience pay attention to your story is not the action or sequence of events.

It is the problem.

What is it that the hero is after?

What is their unmet desire?

Is it food? Shelter? An education?

Start with the problem.

Understand what the hero wants.

Then tell the story truthfully.

You can play with structure.

You can choose the chronological order of how you reveal details in the story.

But identify the problem and make sure it is not solved until the end of the story.

This creates the tension and the curiosity necessary to keep your audience engaged.

If you are looking to learn more about how to master the craft of telling great stories then check out this book, Story Trumps Structure.

I’m sure you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.

CLICK HERE to learn how to tell Emotional Nonprofit Stories!


  1. I believe these books offer tremendous insights into how to improve your marketing and fundraising. I consider them mandatory reading:
    1. Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die
    2. Contagious: Why Things Catch On
    3. Story Trump Structure

Enjoy the rest of the summer.

Happy reading.

And keep doing good work,
Jeremy Signature

3 comments… add one
  • Kym Pasqualini

    Great article and resouces for both for-profit and nonprofits. Thanks for posting!

    • Jeremy

      Thanks for stopping by, Kym!

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